Thursday, November 05, 2020

The Next [De]Generation

“There are three types of lies,” Mark Twain famously quipped, “lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

I know he was overstating the case somewhat, but my time in higher education has given me plenty of opportunity to see that he was not far off. Statistics have a way of impressing people with the apparent solidity of the numbers they generate. Many of us, especially the numerically inclined, tend to think they’re telling us something profound, truthful and scientific. But I have discovered that often they are not, and until you know how the numbers were obtained and how they are being interpreted, you can never be quite sure how solid they really are.

So normally I don’t bother much with surveys. The manner of their gathering is always somewhat hidden. Absent the deep facts of how things were done, it’s hard to be sure you’re getting the right picture. False precision is always a danger in statistical analyses.

Yet every now and then I make an exception. When I find that a set of statistics squares rather well with strong intuitions we are already independently having about the world, then I think sometimes we need a second look. I still think we’re wise to take all statistical surveys with a grain of salt — but there’s also sometimes really useful stuff in them, if you’re ready to dig.


I’ve been reading a book about the National Survey of Youth and Religion, a massive statistical and response-based study of American teenagers’ ideas about religion.

The book is based on the 2003-2005 data compiled by interviewing 3,300 American youths between the ages of thirteen and seventeen. 52% of the survey data was drawn from teens who self-identified as Protestant, 23% said they were Catholics, 16% non-religious, 2.5% Mormons, 1.5% Jews, and the remainder a smattering from 12 different other religions, denominations and labels.

The author, Kenda Creasy Dean, starts off in a rather unusual way: “Let me save you some trouble,” she writes, “Here is the gist of what you are about to read: American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith — but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school.”


Well, hold on, Kenda. Only “American”, you say? What about Canadians, Africans, Brits, Continental Europeans, Koreans or South Americans? And do you mean real Christian kids, or just kids who happen to identify temporarily with some sort of denomination? How was their authenticity tested? How deeply invested were any of them with the religious groups you list? Did they attend services? Did they pray, worship, witness or serve? Who were these kids, really, and how typical were they? From the survey, we don’t really know. But given the range of the survey, it would seem that the word “religious” was taken in a rather superficial way. Mark Twain would be chuckling.

Still, on we go. Just because we have questions about the way data may have been gathered doesn’t tell us whether they end up being wrong or right. So let’s modify our enthusiasm with a little common sense and ask ourselves whether the conclusions the study draws make sense to us.

What kind of Christianity are we talking about? Principal NSYR researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Denton claim that what’s being taught to today’s Christian youth is not true Christianity at all, but rather a thing they call “Morally Therapeutic Deism”, a kind of self-focused quasi-religiosity with the following key beliefs:
  1. Deism — A belief that there is a God who created the world and watches over us, but who is not really involved intimately with our lives and does not require a lot of us. He does not so much concern himself with things like sin, holiness, judgment or righteousness, so much as he stands by to become involved when we have a particular problem we want him to solve for us, and eventually to take all us good people to heaven when we die.
  2. Morality — God really only cares about us being good, tolerant, nice, open-minded and fair to everyone else. He’s probably keen on social justice too.
  3. Therapy — Believing in God is good for us. It makes us happier and free from guilt, and makes us feel good about ourselves, which is the primary value of believing in God — other than the quick ticket to heaven, of course.
Perhaps we should ask ourselves if anything like this is what we are teaching the next generation of Christians. I can’t tell you how it is in your church, but is it just possible that in our soft-peddling of theology we’ve allowed some young people — and hey, how about some older people too — to slide into a belief something like this?

Morally Therapeutic Deism?

You see, it’s not enough for our kids (or for us) to believe that God exists. Even the demons do that, and well, you know how they stand with regard to salvation. And it’s not enough for them to know how to be morally good, or even to do good: think of the Pharisees, and you’ll get that. As for being happy and healthy now — well, you’ve got to know that those things can turn 180 degrees in eternity.

None of those three things — believing in a God, behaving respectably or feeling good — are elements of what it means to be a Christian. At most, some of them, by the grace of God, may be byproducts.

They aren’t salvation. They aren’t service. They aren’t even especially godly.

Where’s It Coming From?

If that’s what we’re allowing to pass for the gospel, we are in a bad, bad way; and our kids are likely in a worse way still. Because they might just believe the nonsense we’re selling, and they may not even know there’s an alternative.

Dean suspects that may be true. She writes:
“The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly, but that we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe: namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people focused primarily on ‘folks like us’ …”
Wow. I really, really hope she’s wrong. But I’ll leave it with you: in regard to your church, has she got a point or not?

Maybe we should ask ourselves this:
  • Are we teaching kids that there IS a God, or how to come to KNOW God?
  • Are we leading them to commit to Christ personally, or merely to admire the concept of a Christ?
  • Are we preparing them to look good by the world’s standards of goodness, or actually to live up to God’s standard?
  • Are we so worried about their future that we are encouraging them to pursue worldly comfort and well-being, or are we rather helping them to see that their sacrifice is required — that though salvation is free, it actually will cost them everything?
  • Are we demonstrating to them that our faith is about being happy in this world, or that it’s really about being made fit for the next?
If we’re not, then what are we really teaching?

Now we also ought to notice this: that young people are not fools. They believe what they see in us far more than they believe what we say to them. We can tell them the right things all we want, but if we don’t model those things, there’s no reason they ought to believe us.


You can check all this out by buying a copy of the book Almost Christian by Kenda Creasy Dean.

Now, I’m not convinced Dean’s demographic study is right. But I’m not convinced it’s wrong either. Statistics can lie; but we need to ask ourselves if these ones are actually lying. The proof will be in the reality of what is true of our own local churches. And I’m going to watch to make sure that what she says of Christians generally is not true of my congregation.

And that it never does become true.

How about you?


  1. Some years ago I was teaching a senior Sunday school class. I stood up, motioned along the floor with my hand, and said "There is the edge of a cliff. Some of you are staying as far from the edge as you can. Some of you are trying to get as close to the edge as possible. And some of you are wandering around with no idea where the edge is. And I know which category each of you is in." Time has proven me correct. To suggest that kids in all three categories be lumped together just because they happen to be sitting in a Sunday school class together, is ridiculous, and not very statistically relevant.

  2. Great article. The comment that jumped out to me was in Dean's quote, "... we believe ... that God requires little ..."

    I have seen this to be true in so many churches where the bar has been dropped to Sunday morning attendance. As long as people come in with a smile on their face and don't cause any trouble then pastors/elders pat them on their heads and send them on their merry way.

    God require so much more than that.

  3. In my experience, it does matter what kids are taught i.e. religious education is foundational. But this MUST be accompanied by observable experimental faith that is full of good works, consistent with the dogmatics. I've "sampled" my children's generation, who are now well into their thirties, and what has really mattered in terms of their continuance in a living faith with Christ, is faith which is well integrated with practice.